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The Gospel of Tony Soprano
"The Sopranos," starring the late James Gandolfini, had a surprising religious side.
June 27th, 2013
09:40 AM ET

The Gospel of Tony Soprano

By Father Edward L. Beck, CNN Faith and Religion Commentator

(CNN) - The only time I met James Gandolfini, we talked about God.

It was a chance meeting at the Broadway play “God of Carnage,” in which he was acting. I went backstage to see someone else but was introduced to James.

When he heard that I was a priest he laughed and said, “Gee, Father, I hope you didn’t think this was a play about God.”

“No, I didn’t,” I said, “but I was surprised to find out that it actually was.”

He looked perplexed by my answer, hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Well, we’ll have to talk about that sometime.”

Of course, we never did. It was the first and last time I saw him.

I had, however, seen him many times on television in one of my favorite shows, “The Sopranos.”

Perhaps it’s unwise for a Catholic priest to admit being a “Sopranos” fan, but I confess to having used it more than once as fodder for a Sunday homily. I happen to think it was one of the most spiritual shows on television. Had I told James that, he might have been as surprised as he was by my “God of Carnage” quip.

READ MORE: James Gandolfini's last roles

Tony Soprano was every man - and maybe every woman, too. That’s why we tuned in week after week– because we saw ourselves reflected, and we wanted to find out how we would turn out.

While most of us have never belonged to the mob or killed anybody, we’ve all done things about which we are not proud, things we hope nobody finds out about.

Yes, we are basically good people, but we have a darker side, too. We try to hide it or dress it up, but every once in a while it emerges, perhaps does some damage, and then recedes to the recesses of our lives until our next stumble. Kind of like Tony.

Despite his occasional murder or infidelity, most of us thought Tony was a pretty good guy. We thought he only roughed up the bad guys who chose to put themselves in harm's way with their profession choice.

We believed he loved his wife, even though he cheated on her. We trusted he cared about his kids, even though it was sometimes with the back of his hand and punctuated with the “f” word.

Yes, Tony was a mass of contradictions, but that’s why we liked him. He made us feel better about our own contradictory lives because they seemed angelic in comparison to his.

There’s precedent for dubious heroes in the Scriptures, too. Many of the biblical boldface names led lives that were hardly free of moral ambiguity.

Abraham pretends his wife is his sister and proffers her for sex to powerful kings. Noah drank too much. Lot offers his virgin daughter to be gang-raped. David was an adulterer and murderer, Samson was a Lothario, too. And Moses was a murderer with a self-esteem problem.

Yet despite their glaring peccadilloes, they are heroes for us because God uses them despite their foibles, writes straight with crooked lines and all that.

READ MORE: Fans mourn Gandolfini: 'It's not James, it's Tony'

There’s a scene in “The Sopranos” where Tony’s son A.J., quoting the German philosopher Nietzsche, solemnly proclaims that “God is dead.” As a result, A.J. tells Tony that he doesn’t want to get confirmed in the Catholic Church.

Tony, knowing that his churchgoing and priest-befriending wife, Carmela, would have none of that, says, “You go to Catholic school. And your mother wants it. ... She knows that even if God is dead, you’re still going to kiss his ass.”

That’s our Tony, profane and to the point. We cheer for him all the more because, even though he messes up his own life, he tries his best to make sure his kids don’t mess up theirs. “Do as I say, not as I do.” How many of us have heard that sage advice from our doting parents?

Reports about the final day of James Gandolfini’s life seem to show a person who lived large, literally and figuratively.

If we are to believe The New York Post (and I don’t always), Gandolfini partook of a bacchanal feast of four shots of rum, two pina coladas, two beers, plus two orders of fried king prawns and a lot of foie gras.

But lest our final memory of him be marred by his seeming fall into the sin of gluttony, we are told that he had just come from touring the Vatican.

Sounds like something Tony would do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Father Edward L. Beck.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Celebrity • Christianity • Entertainment • Media • Opinion

soundoff (97 Responses)
  1. Kathryn Elich

    Father – you are typically safely Catholic. In your little religion and practices – getting little chuckles on Sunday while you lull and pacify your safe parishoners with analgies from tv. The Sopranos is 'like you and I' simply humans and Tony is like every man. HARDLY like Christ. – you make so light of and try to align yourself safely without blooding you hands that we all are the same. No, I enjoy James' great acting abilities but can easily get that the Sopranos is about something I do know is celebrating something Christ came to deliver and save out of. Very far from God the lifestyle is – sure the innocents children-like the ones the church has hurt and failed to confess to. Maybe that's your alignment. Your sense of understanding the Sopranos. Cheaters – murderers – comradery aside; God says it's of the devil. Jesus was slain by such people – a contract to rid the land of a enemy. Jesus said Love your enemies. Jesus said about children if anyone harms them it is better they put a stone around their neck and throw themselves into the sea – it is better if they never be born. For what God is going to judge. You my friend are justifying and lusting after the flesh – The Sopranos article you took time for; even to repeat a rumor of what James ate that day – you regurgitated the very thing – and callled it a sin of 'gluttony'. You called him a glutton when he is not here. To be born again is to be born a new in the spirt – a new. Yet you lavish your eyes and wet your mouth with how 'simply human' like yourself you and the Sopranos are. You better go and read your New Testament again father – you must be born again to enter the kingdom of God. You still are lusting after the flesh. The devil tormented Tony soprano – he got him and he tortured him , physically psychologically and spiritually and cursed was his home life – why ? Through unrepentant sin. Where you been father? Where you been! You have nothing to offer from what Jesus sent us all to do – preach the Gospel to the poor heal the sick raise the dead feed the hungry clothe the naked visit the sick and imprisoned – what else. Oh it starts with Repentance – You put Jesus on the Cross – He died for your sins – all of our sins. He died that you might be free from the judgement of them from God, He took the judgement. You must get back to that Cross father. We don't care what you watch on tv. But if you can't lead sinners to Christ – get out of the biz. Why didn't you speak of the role James had in Not Fade Away. far more redeeming. And quit slandering people. You didn't see what he ate and drank that day -you believe everything you read? Or see? That's why I go to a bible church – a gathering – don't go to a Catholic church tho raised in the schools. They talk about Jesus – the One Lord.

    July 4, 2013 at 9:37 am |
    • Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

      Kathryn – your analysis of Father's great post has all the arrogance and naivety of a Grade 8 child! What an uneducated, disrespectful, patronizing little twerp you are. Please dear – go away and come back when you know what the he!! you're talking about!

      July 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
  2. Jim J.

    Wonderful article. I would enjoy reading more from Fr. Beck.

    July 2, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
    • Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

      Same here Jim. God bless, friend.

      July 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 29, 2013 at 5:47 am |
    • MandoZink

      Carefully designed experiments have shown over and over again that prayer has absolutely the same effect on the outcome of an event as purely random chance does. People who believe in prayer have a tendency to blindly overlook failed results, noticing only outcomes that reinforce their convictions.

      You can try this repeatedly:
      Place one man in front of a church full of devout people, place a second man in front of an emergency trauma center. Then shoot each of the two men in the stomach with a 45. Then let the entire church pray relentlessly and sincerely for their guy, and let the trauma center take care of the other. See who fares better. Prayer will fail – every time.

      Figure one thing out for yourself – you inherited your religious beliefs. That is the only thing you can say with absolute certainty about your particular religion.

      June 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
      • Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

        Mando look up Jack Traynor and Gabriel Gargam [miracles at Lourdes] and LEARN!

        July 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • as always

      mando... is wrong

      June 30, 2013 at 6:55 am |
      • Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

        He certainly is.

        July 18, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • Vyhea

      You might do well to pay attention to Mando's comments. He is one of the rare few pundits on CNN who actually consider what they post, and he comments only on what he knows to be factual and verifiable. He is active on many science sites under the same username and is highly regarded for his reflections on topics. His insightful observations and remarks are shrewd, precise and pleasantly refreshing. This is in stark contrast to most commentors and trolls who continuously post crude remarks, unfounded criticisms and unjustly biased notions.

      The research studies MandoZink which referred to in his post were meticulously designed to eliminate all researcher and participant biases. The carefully analyzed results showed no variation whatsoever from statistically random chance.

      The only positive effect of prayer is a naively derived satisfaction benefiting the believer and possibly the intended recipient who shares the belief, confirming both of their particular preconceived speculative notions. A type of "confirmation bias" (look it up).

      June 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  4. MandoZink

    "Yes, we are basically good people, but we have a darker side, too. We try to hide it or dress it up, but every once in a while it emerges, perhaps does some damage, and then recedes to the recesses of our lives until our next stumble." – Father Edward L. Beck

    It is a bit worrisome to hear this sort of generalization. It sounds like the thief who assumes that everybody else steals since they do, or that everyone else cheats because they do. Non-theists question the theist view that people would have no morals without god. Would you actually steal of kill if you found out there was no god?

    Atheists understand you have yourself to answer to for what you do. You cannot be unjust and expect to get off the hook by expecting supreme being’s forgiveness. You maintain integrity because it is the right thing to do. Those of us who always knew this never cultivated a dark side to begin with. Mammy Yokum once said "Good is better than evil 'cause it's nicer!”

    By the way, I loved the Sopranos. James Gandolfini was outstanding.
    (Disclaimer – I was raised Catholic)

    June 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Zink, as an unbeliever, do you accept the fact that you wasted your time on earth stroking your ego that will be rejected by Jesus Christ. No eternity for you unless you repent, then sin no more by believing your own self to be His truth.

      June 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • MandoZink

      No. But hey, you used the word "fact"! That's a good thing. It is. Really,... it is.

      June 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  5. Darlene

    What a wonderful article. I too was such a "Sopranos" fan, and mostly because, aside from the mob, their lives were so 'normal'.
    James Gandolfini was a brilliant actor and humanitarian. It's not only Hollywood that mourns his loss. It was a loss that was felt globally.
    RIP.

    June 28, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Kathryn Elich

      James can't save you. He's in eternity, for real, really – what would he be telling you now.

      July 4, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  6. DAN

    Like many actors before him he was a disgrace. Just to play his part with all the cussing, adultry, and criminal activity. the impression he leaves on the general public especially our children is totatally wrong. He like many actors and comedians are a major reason our country is in such a disgraceful moral downfall.

    June 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • Spike5

      Dan, What decent parents would allow their children to watch The Sopranos? Come to think of it, what kind of parents would allow their children to be terrorized by thoughts of hell and eternal damnation and and eternity of fire?

      June 28, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • Phil Sheppard

      Hey, DAN, I guess you and your family are perfect, huh? The moral, upright citizens we should ALL be, huh? Don't take out your frustrations with society on Mr. Gandolfini. James was a fine, wonderful and impressive actor. Call DISH and drop HBO if you don't want your perfect kids to be maimed by TV.

      June 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Linda

      Whatever is wrong with you is no small thing. Disgraceful moral downfall? That is why there is an OFF button. Don't look if you don't want to. Be careful about judging others...someone ELSE has that job.

      June 28, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Vic

      Dan you're somebody who clearly cannot separate the character one plays with reality.

      June 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  7. palintwit

    Historians now agree that the south lost the civil war because generations of inbreeding resulted in an abnormally high number of mentally challenged soldiers in the confederate army. Also, physical deformities such as webbed feet prevented the confederates from running from the northern army, thus insuring their capture and defeat. One has only to take a casual drive south of the Mason-Dixon line to see the descendants of the confederate forces, easily recognizable by their lack of teeth, sloping foreheads and desire to eat at Chick-fil-A.

    June 28, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • Sister Valium

      My my, what a racist reply.

      June 28, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • tony

      I think it's actually geographist.

      June 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Goaty McCheese

      Are these the same "historians" who speak to you in your sleep?

      June 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • Amy

      What does any of this have to do with an article about the late James Gandolfini?

      July 3, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  8. Shawn

    R.I.P.

    June 28, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  9. Very rare indeed

    Good acting and amazing script writing is so rare these days. I couldn't help but watch every episode when HBO put them all on at 8EST a few months ago. Didn't miss a single one. This is pretty much why I support HBO even when I could download everything they produce.

    June 28, 2013 at 9:28 am |
  10. hannah1

    Awesome, Father. You nailed it!

    June 28, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Mike

      I agree Hannah. Morally Tony was an enigma but aren't we all? Lot's to not be proud of in my past, particularly when it came to my children, but we are who we are, and fortunately, Father Beck is right. Whatever God we believe in has his way of seeing past the crap. Now if only the churches could figure that out.

      June 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  11. Head Cheese Ravioli

    R.I.P. "Tony", I have lived the life, I have honored my boss. Dirty deeds done dirt cheep to settle scores, to even the playing field and to get one up on the rest, that's just the way it is.

    June 28, 2013 at 8:41 am |
  12. ela

    Great article, love it! Thank you Father you nailed it!

    Rest in Peace Mr. Gandolfini!
    Thank you for 6 great years!

    June 28, 2013 at 8:31 am |
  13. Splinter48708

    Thank you for this article, Fr. Beck. Very nicely worded article.

    June 28, 2013 at 4:02 am |
  14. chicago7

    The writer nailed it. My fascination with "T" was in his conflicted personality and moral code. Characters like that always interest me, precisely because they are true-to-life and not easily summed up and dismissed. I love a gray hat. My favorite thing about Tony Soprano was that he was a big, beefy alpha mail by day, and then would go home at night and be utterly frustrated in the face of teenaged angst and rebellion, like every other parent. Great stuff.

    June 28, 2013 at 1:40 am |
  15. Doobs

    What a self-serving jerk.

    June 27, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  16. jb

    Love this. From a priest. Excellent. All true and very insightful. The Sopranos was about life, just amplified. And Gandolfini was full of it. What an actor, man, story. RIP, JG. The world will miss you.

    June 27, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  17. I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

    I was with your dad and them at the Copa. F.uckin' BOAC stewardess put it in my drink. Jerry Vale's singin' and I look over. Your Uncle Jun's got laser beams shootin' out his eyes!

    June 27, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  18. JEANETTE NOLFI

    FIRST I WOULD LIKE TO SAY FATHER BECK I ENJOY YOUR ESSAY.I LOVED THAT SHOW I GUESS FIRST BECAUSE I AM ITALIAN.SECOND BECAUSE I GREW UP IN A NEIGHBOR HOOD LIKE THAT.FROM SOUTH PHILLY IN THE ITALIAN MARKET WE WERE TAUGHT TO KEEP ON WALKING.HEAR SEE AND THINK NO EVIL.THEY NEVER HURTED INNOCENT PEOPLE .WHAT THEY DID WAS THEIR WAY OF LIFE .GOOD OR BAD.

    June 27, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  19. Uthor

    This is thoughtful, well-written, and it hits upon some truth. Father Beck sounds like a good and caring priest–who fully understands that life calls for constant stewardship and reflection.

    June 27, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
  20. Jame B

    I knew the daughter of a mobster in university, years ago, in the hay day of Jimmy Hoffa. She was worried, scared, and lonely. She shared with me, and then with me and a priest, what her life was like.

    Shortly after that, TIME did an expose about the mob, and her life stared at me in its pages.

    I couldn't watch the Godfather movies, or that program of James G's. I might admire the man as an actor, but I can find nothing redeeming in the character he portrayed.

    I know what it was like to be in a restaurant, with him being called away by the headwaiter to take a phone call, to come back to the table to say that the family should just finish up, the bill was taken care of.

    I know how she feared having any part of her life on campus become known to him, lest he 'buy' better for her.

    I can't find any sort of a 'god' other than Baal, in him.

    June 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
    • Akira

      While I know very little about the real mob, I couldn't watch the Sopranos, either. I saw nothing likable about his character, and I still don't.
      I am unsure of what this priest's purpose was in writing this essay, but like I stated before, it seems very opportunistic, and it looked as if he melded the man with his character.
      I am not impressed with this essay one iota.

      As for your post, I hope your friend found some measure of happiness in her life. I cannot imagine an existence such as hers.

      June 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.